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Word of Wisdom

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Joseph Smith, the first leader and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave to his followers as revelations from God, not only spiritual, but also temporal doctrines. Such is in keeping with his teaching that “the spirit and body are the soul of a man”, implying that anything which degenerates the body retards progress of the soul. According to this doctrine, temporal and spiritual affairs assume equal importance; and all phases of life must be included in one’s religion” (L. Weston Oaks M.D., Medical Aspects of the Latter-day Saints’ Word of Wisdom).

What is the Word of Wisdom?

Joseph Smith Mormon
The Word of Wisdom is a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith as a response to an inquiry. Brigham Young (second president of the Church) related some of the circumstances leading up to the reception of the revelation:
“The brethren came to that place for hundreds of miles to attend school in a little room probably no larger than eleven by fourteen. When they assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first they did was to light their pipes, and, while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, … and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often when the Prophet entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean [the] floor, made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the Elders in using tobacco.” (Journal of Discourses, 12:158.)

At first this revelation was not given as a commandment. An introduction was added describing it as "a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints." (Doctrine and Covenants 89:3) This allowed time for Church members to adjust to the principles contained in the revelation.

In 1851 President Young proposed to the general conference of the Church that all members formally covenant to keep the Word of Wisdom. His proposal was unanimously sustained by the membership of the Church, and since that day the revelation has been a binding commandment on all Church members.

The Word of Wisdom has become one of the recognized and peculiar practices of members of the Church. Many people that are not members of Church know that members in good standing abstain from tobacco, coffee, tea, and all alcoholic beverages.

Scientific studies have confirmed the positive effects of obeying the Word of Wisdom: in fact, Latter-day Saints have fewer incidences of heart problems, all forms of cancer, and other diseases because of their adherence to the Word of Wisdom. Many Saints live a longer life and enjoy a better quality of life than the populations in which they live. The Word of Wisdom lists numerous items which should be avoided or used. The things that are to be avoided are strong drink (liquor), tobacco, and hot drinks (tea and coffee). The Saints are then told that herbs and fruits should be used in their seasons, meat should be eaten sparingly, and that grain is the staff of life. If the Saints follow these instructions they are told that they will receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; and shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen (Doctrine and Covenants 89:18-21).

What are the provisions of the Word of Wisdom?

The revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith uses the following words to define and advise against the use of harmful substances and beverages:

"Strong drinks (meaning alcoholic or other harmful beverages) are not for the belly." (Doctrine and Covenants 89:7)
"Tobacco is not for the body...and is not good for man." (Doctrine and Covenants 89:8)
"Hot drinks [meaning black tea and coffee] are not for the body." (Doctrine and Covenants 89:9)

The Word of Wisdom not only admonishes against the use of harmful substances, but it also describes those foods which are good for man:

"All wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—
"Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof;
"Flesh … of beasts and of the fowls of the air...are to be used sparingly;
"All grain is ordained for the use of man...to be the staff of life...
"All grain is good for the food of man; as also the fruit of the vine." (Doctrine and Covenants 89:10–12, 14, 16)

The Word of Wisdom is a law and a principle with promise. When men and women obey the provisions of the law, they receive the blessings associated with those provisions. However, if they do not obey, there will be both temporal and spiritual consequences.

What does "conspiring men" refer to in the revelation about the Word of Wisdom?

President Ezra Taft Benson in one of his talks explains that there is another part of this revelation that constitutes a particularly important warning to our modern generation:

"In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation" (Doctrine and Covenants 89:4).
The Lord, in his infinite wisdom, foresaw the situation of today when the desire for money would cause men to conspire to convince others to use harmful substances. We are all too familiar with advertisements which promote the use and purchase of beer, liquors, coffee, tobacco, and other harmful substances. Even worse than this, an evil conspiracy in our time is enticing young people into the use of drugs. (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, May 1983)

Does the Word of Wisdom forbid caffeine?

The text of the Word of Wisdom never mentions its reasons for avoiding hot drinks, but over time many people, including some Latter-day Saints, have come to assume that the reason the Lord forbids coffee and tea is the caffeine. This leads to criticism of Saints that drink caffeinated soft drinks. The Church has said:

With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on the matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided.
Priesthood Bulletin, 1972

The spirit of the Word of Wisdom is that all healthy foods should be eaten in moderation and unhealthy foods should be avoided. The Church has scrupulously avoided giving detailed lists of approved and unapproved food. It is up to the conscience of the individual Mormon to apply this to his life. Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine had this to say:

Some unstable people become cranks with reference to this law of health. It should be understood that the Word of Wisdom is not the gospel, and the gospel is not the Word of Wisdom. As Paul said, 'The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost' (Romans 14:17). There is no prohibition in Section 89, for instance, against the eating of white bread, using white flour, white sugar, cocoa, chocolate, eggs, milk, meat, or anything else, except items classified under the headings, tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor. As a matter of fact those who command that men should not eat meat, are not ordained of God, such counsel being listed by Paul as evidence of apostasy.
God has created 'meats,' he says, 'to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth' (1 Timothy 4:3). If some particular food or drink disagrees with an individual, then that person should act accordingly without reference to the prohibitions in this particular law of health. [1]

More about health and the bounties of the earth can be found in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 59, which predated the Word of Wisdom:

The fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth; Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards; Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion (Doctrine and Covenants 59:16-20).

References

  1. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd Edition, p. 846.

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